Investigation: Illegal Gun Buyers Have an Easy Time Online

The New York City's mayor's office found an open market for guns sold without background checks, and with few questions asked.

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Easy firearm sales over the Internet, through classified sites like Craigslist, may be to blame for a significant amount of the nation’s gun crime, thanks to a loophole in federal firearm regulations that some private arms sellers are taking advantage of, according to a new investigation released Wednesday.

In a probe of illegal online firearm sales conducted by the City of New York, undercover investigators found that 62% of private gun sellers they interacted with were willing to sell guns to a buyer who said he could not pass a background check.

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Such weapons, available by the thousands online, fall under a loophole in federal firearm sales laws, and many could potentially find their way into a black market, to the streets and eventually into violent crimes, officials with the New York City mayor’s office said.

In the report, entitled “Point, Click, Fire,” a team of 15 investigators commissioned by the city’s criminal justice division captured audio and video recordings of online gun dealers. They examined 125 private sellers in 14 states who sold guns on 10 different websites. The sites had few rules on potential buyers identifying themselves, potentially attracting ill-intended customers.

After establishing that the seller was not a federally licensed firearm dealer, but rather a private seller (and thus not required to conduct a background check), the investigator would negotiate a deal. The official would then communicate to the seller that he would be prohibited from buying a gun because he “probably couldn’t pass a background check.” The parties would then agree on a place and time to complete the sale.

The investigation found that 77 out of the 125 sellers (62%) agreed to sell a firearm to someone who said they might fail a background check, meaning he would not be able to go to a licensed gun dealer and purchase a weapon but could easily do so online through a private seller. Any criminal evidence was forwarded to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

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“We shop online, we do business online and unfortunately gun sales happen online,” John Feinblatt, the chief policy advisor to New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, tells TIME. “It can be a problem because it’s a place where one can do it pretty anonymously.”

Federal law mandates that retail firearm sales be conducted in person by licensed gun sellers, such as a transaction at a gun shop where a background check can be done. A seller may sell to someone in another state, but must first transfer the weapon to a licensed dealer. But classified online sales are considered private, meaning they are done by people who are considered collectors or hobbyists, need no background check and they leave “a loophole you can drive a Mack truck through,” Feinblatt says. Private transactions account for 40 % of the nation’s gun sales, according to the report.

Such sales wind up in classified ads on gun-oriented websites, any many are transacted legally, with the seller refusing to sell to someone who they believe would not pass a background check. However, in NYC’s investigation, 82 percent of the gun sellers they dealt with on Craigslist had no problem making transactions with such people, although Craigslist prohibits gun sales. Other sites like Armslist.com, GlockTalk.com, and GunServer.org each had sellers who failed the investigation’s integrity test.

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Such sales, the New York officials say, can become deadly. “In 2008, there was a schizophrenic man in New York City with a history of violent crime,” Feinblatt said. “He brought his gun on Craigslist and wound up shooting someone in a deli.”

TIME attempted to contact a Craigslist spokesperson, but a message was not returned. However, Jon Gibbon, a co-founder of Armslist.com, a website listed in the investigation where guns are sold through classified ads, said in a statement to TIME that he was “taken aback” by suggestions that his site was irresponsible. “The individuals involved in a transaction are responsible and it is their burden to conduct themselves legally and properly,” said Gibbon, who started the website with friend Brian Mancini in 2007.  “Armslist is committed to serving law abiding citizens and protecting our Second Amendment freedoms.”

He added that users of the site are instructed to conduct transfers legally and to notify authorities of illegal activity. “Users must agree to our terms before they can access the website, which requires them to affirm that they are 18 or older and will only conduct legal transactions.”

Investigators found more than 25,000 firearms in the 10 sites reviewed. But not all of the sellers were willing to deal illegally. “Some people, shut us down. They followed the law,” Feinblatt says.

“We’re not opposed to gun sales on the Internet, we’re opposed to illegal gun sales on the Internet,” he adds. “We have a beef with people who fragrantly disregard the law. We’re not asking the websites to shut down, we’re asking them to police their websites.”

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